If you’ve ever ventured north of the comfort of Walnut Street, you’ll easily recognize the restaurant we’re featuring today. Just two blocks off Walnut on Market and 36th, Herban Quality Eats stands out with its modern facade and bright clean interior, beckoning in the curious hungry passerby. Two Penn Appétit bloggers got a chance to sit down with Kalefe Wright, one of the two co-founders of Herban Quality Eats.
Walking into Herban, you’re first struck by the clean lines of the place, the bright green of the plants decorating a wall to your right and the vibrant colors of huge photos to your left. Then, by that lovely cooking smell. The space perfectly juxtaposes a light and airy yet spunky interior against the rich warm scents of comfort food—healthy comfort food, that is. But your tastebuds wouldn’t know it.
The goal behind Herban Quality Eats, Kalefe told us, was to create a dining experience that would be both nutritious and exciting from a culinary perspective. Not satisfied with the available healthy options in terms of taste, Kalefe and his co-founder Amir Fardshisheh set about to change that. They could easily see that cooking healthy meals at home resulted in completely satisfying dishes while choosing healthy options when eating out usually meant settling on a salad. To Kalefe, a self-proclaimed “meat and potatoes kind of guy,” the options were seriously lacking in flavors, spice and bulk. Warm bowls and plates—think grains, protein, warm vegetable sides and various toppings—are now on the rise but five years ago? None to be found.
Kalefe and Amir, while working toward their MBAs at Wharton, saw other problems in the way people approach healthy eating. Most health issues in the US are food and diet related; unhealthy eating and inactivity are together the leading cause of death in the US, contributing to approximately 678,000 deaths each year  . Noticing this, Kalefe and Amir dreamed up Herban Quality Eats as an antidote, a simple restaurant concept celebrating health and wellness. “Every meal that we serve can be a step to helping people to be healthier overall,” Kalefe told us.
Herban was born as a collaboration with chef Chris Paul, a graduate of Drexel’s culinary program, an alumnus of a few of Philadelphia’s big-name restaurants and a serious gym junkie. Coming from this dual background of weightlifting and gourmet cooking, Chris understood the importance of both health and taste.
Food served at Herban has a few key qualities; you can be certain that everything you’ll find on your plate will be natural, nutrient rich and thoughtfully prepared. The latter two tenants were posed in response to the limited wholesome food scene the founders once saw, in which “healthy” foods tended to just be low-calorie, sometimes even empty in terms of nutrition, and quality ingredients were often poorly prepared, losing their prize nutrition in a preparation process rife with additives. Following these guidelines, the team at Herban sources their ingredients from local farms, including Heritage Farm in West Philadelphia, where chef Chris had previously volunteered. Their menu boasts responsibly raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and fresh local produce, and their emphasis on proper cooking methods guarantees that the quality of their ingredients shines.
Somehow, they’ve hit a sweet spot with their menu, developing dishes that feel like comfort food but certainly don’t sit in your stomach like comfort food. The dishes are rich, with a great depth of flavor; satisfying, but not overly filling. Kalefe tells us that the Caribbean and Haitian flavors—most obvious in the seasoned jerk chicken and the sweet potato mash made with coconut milk—reflect the dishes he grew up eating, while the Middle Eastern twists—as in a vegan “jawn” reminiscent of baked falafel—come from Amir’s background. Some menu items—like the hummus and plantain chips—combine the influences in a bold way we didn’t expect but absolutely loved.Their current brick and mortar is their concept store, where they try new concepts out, experiment with their current system, debut menus and gauge what works, what doesn’t and what might. They hopeto expand to Center City possibly by next year. In the mean time, the University City concept store will be seeing a lot of new expansions and developments over the next few months. These will include an expansion of hours later into the evenings, a brunch menu on weekends, and a new delivery program, in which students can place an order in the morning and pick up a lunch delivered to Huntsman Hall midday—at no additional delivery fee. All three of these improvements are an effort to target even more of the local Penn population and deliver on the founding promise of improving health and wellness. Consistent with their mission, the Herban team is endlessly trying to make it as easy as possible for students to access wholesome meals.
We also chatted with Kalefe about his experience taking a bold idea and running with it, ultimately bringing it to fruition. He admitted to a few bumps along the way, as expected, sharing that their biggest obstacles were fundraising, which they accomplished mostly through friends and family who believed in their idea, and location, since a small new business, with no guarantee of success, does not exactly get the pick of the litter. While some entrepreneurs might wait and wait for ample funding and that perfect location, Kalefe and Amir decided to jump in and start developing their business idea. Without a brick and mortar store, they started delivering meals working out of the Center for Culinary Enterprises in West Philadelphia to gain momentum on their idea. With sufficient feedback and a proven market for their concept, the eventual leap to a brick and mortar investment was made easier by their determination to jump in.
To any students interested in the world of restaurant venues, Kalefe advises to get as much experience as you can. At Penn, he said knowingly, “you have the world at your fingertips.” Ask for as much advice as you possibly can and definitely learn from other people’s endeavors before launching into your own. Speaking from his experience working at Shake Shack while incubating his own restaurant idea, he advised, “you’ll learn a lot from the people who currently do it best.”
Whether it’s the prolonged connection with the school that encouraged him to take this unconventional leap in the first place or outreach to the larger community, Kalefe is constantly brainstorming exciting ways to make Herban Quality Eats much more than a new healthy eatery. The commitment to community health and wellness is so deeply integrated in the restaurant itself, to the extent that we see them picking up costs to deliver wholesome food to Penn students at no additional fee and both donating to and working with urban schools to develop nutrition education programs. The passion in this project runs deep, and, believe us, you can taste it in every bite.
Head on over to Herban Quality Eats, located at 3601 Market Street, to get a sense of why we are loving this place so much right now. Don’t feel like making the “trek”? Try out their Herban on the Go program, officially launching March 22.
Written by Juliana Sandford
Photos by Jennifer Higa